The "Problems of the Year 2000," as the Y2K bug is known in Egypt, seem a light year away to the men puffing on water pipes at a small cafe in a Cairo slum.
"Let me first solve the problem of 1999," said Fathallah Mohran, 50.
A quick briefing about the potential computer malady that has consumed much of the Western world only confuses him further. The same ignorance can be found all over Egypt, where many banks, industries and government agencies are computerized, but where nearly half of all adults cannot read and the majority of the 60 million people live below the poverty line.
And that's exactly how Egyptian authorities want the country to confront the Year 2000 issue, to avoid millennial hysteria. "If you don't know, you won't panic," said Ehab Mostafa Elwy, head of the government agency that is trying to ensure Egypt's computers are prepared for the event.
Y2K panic might send people rushing to hoard supplies, causing shortages, or spur them to withdraw money from banks, bringing about a collapse of the financial market, Elwy said.
His job is not to make sure the public is Y2K savvy, but to ensure that people involved with computers know what to do. The government has organized seminars and training sessions--programs largely underwritten by $4 million in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Elwy insists that although Egypt was relatively late in addressing the millennium bug, the threat has been eradicated in all vital services--electricity, water, energy, gas, telecommunications and aviation.
But some equipment in hospital intensive care units has not yet been converted, he acknowledged, so many have adopted a contingency plan--instead of programming their computers by the year, they are doing so by the week.
Elwy said that 97 percent of all government computer equipment is ready to meet the millennium--it employs 166 mainframes and 108,518 other computers--but as is the case in most countries, those claims cannot be independently verified.
Ali Moselhi and Mohammed Abdelfattah Azab, who organized most of the Y2K awareness programs here, believe the government is ready but that the private sector is likely to experience significant problems. Only about half the estimated 100,000 mainframe and smaller computers in private use will be ready, said Azab.
As a result, he said, air conditioners and elevators could fail in some hospitals, hotels and other buildings. That would affect some of the 50,000 tourists expected for a New Year's dusk-to-dawn celebration at the pyramids outside Cairo, which is to feature a new opera by French composer Jean Michel Jarre. Officials say getting cash from ATM machines also could be a problem.
Egypt was cited by the CIA's expert on Y2K, Lawrence Gershwin, in October as being among countries where Y2K preparations have been poor and where significant failures in essential services are possible.
U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer is quoted on the embassy's Web site, however, as saying in an October speech: "We don't anticipate a major disruption of utilities and services."
Egypt, a country where chaos and bureaucracy are ways of life, is not known for contingency planning. So, if pension checks do not reach people on time, for example, there will not be much fuss, said Moselhi. They are never on time anyway.
And because Egypt is more a cash-based than an electronic society, experts say it will not be as severely affected as Western countries. Most local bank branches are not even connected to their central offices, let alone to overseas banks.
Moreover, New Year's Day falls within the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a period of fasting and prayer in this predominantly Muslim nation.
"I am sure the way we will handle the problem here will be calm," Moselhi said. "Even if an intensive care unit does not work properly and the guy dies, this will not be a problem, because if he has to die, he will die. No one will say the Y2K killed him. . . . They will say it was God's will."
CAPTION: Traders on the floor of the bustling Cairo stock exchange use personal computers to carry out daily transactions, but government experts estimate that half of all computers in private use in the country have not been prepared for the "Problems of the Year 2O00," as the Y2K phenomenon is called in Egypt.